The Rise in U.S. Military Suicides: Why?
Even though combat action in Afghanistan is decreasing for most soldiers, it’s not translating to less stress. Members of the military committed suicide at a record pace in 2012 — almost one per day — and some experts think the trend will grow worse this year.
What Research Says
Pentagon figures obtained by The Associated Press show 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year, up from 301 the year before and exceeding the Pentagon’s own internal projection of 325. Last year’s total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides.
The Pentagon has struggled to deal with suicides, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq and is increasingly complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of uniform as defense budgets are cut.
“Now that we’re decreasing our troops and they’re coming back home, that’s when they’re really in the danger zone, when they’re transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves,” said Kim Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself in 2005. She directs a suicide prevention program for a support group, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.
One such case was Army Spc. Christopher Nguyen, 29, who killed himself in August at an off-post residence he shared with another member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to his sister, Shawna Nguyen. “He was practically begging for help, and nothing was done,” she said in an interview.
She said he had been diagnosed with an “adjustment disorder” — a problem of coping with the uncertainties of returning home after three deployments in war zones. She believes the Army failed her brother by not doing more to ensure that he received the help he needed before he became suicidal. “It’s the responsibility of the military to help these men and women,” she said. “They sent them over there (to war); they should be helping them when they come back.”
Finding Help for Service Members
Officials say they are committed to pursuing ways of finding help for service members in trouble. “Our most valuable resource within the department is our people. We are committed to taking care of our people and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military,” Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said Monday.
The Army, by far the largest of the military services, had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops last year at 182, but the Marine Corps, whose suicide numbers had declined for two years, had the largest percentage increase — a 50 percent jump to 48. The Marines’ worst year was 2009, with 52 suicides. The Air Force recorded 59 suicides, up 16 percent from the previous year, and the Navy had 60, up 15 percent. All the numbers are tentative, pending the completion later this year of formal pathology reports on each case.
Suicide prevention has become a high Pentagon priority, yet the problem persists. “If you have a perfect storm of events on the day with somebody who has high risk factors, it’s very difficult to be there every moment, fill every crack, and we just have to continue to be aware of what the risk factors are,” Ruocco said.
Two retired Army generals, Peter W. Chiarelli and Dennis J. Reimer, have spoken out about the urgency of reversing the trend. “One of the things we learned during our careers,” they wrote in The Washington Post last month, “is that stress, guns and alcohol constitute a dangerous mixture. In the wrong proportions, they tend to blow out the lamp of the mind and cause irrational acts.”
A study also found that most service members who attempted suicide — about 65 percent — had a known behavior disorder such as depression, whereas 45 percent of those who actually completed the act and killed themselves had such a history.
We Can Help
If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD, Amen Clinics can help. We will help you learn more about your brain and assist with early diagnosis and intervention. Call us today at 888-288-9834 or visit our website to schedule a visit.